Friday, December 19, 2014


One of the main characters in Eoin Colfer's The Reluctant Assassin (Disney-Hyperion, 2013) is a 16 year old girl named Chevron Savano who is kind-of-sort-of an FBI agent (p. 21-22):
At five foot six she was a little short for an FBI agent, but she was lithe and fast, with a delicate oval face and the glossy black hair typical of Native Americans.
That "glossy black hair" that is "typical" of Native people? Well.... it is typical of the stereotypical image of Native people. As such, it is our first clue that Colfer's character is, well, a bit more of a white man's Indian than a real Native person.

When Chevie first meets Riley, the other main character (he isn't Native), he looks at her and says (p. 46):
'Miss,' said Riley. 'Have I come to rest in a travelling Wild West Show? You appear to be a savage Injun.' 
Chevie glared down at the boy, along the sights of her weapon. 'We don't use the term savage Injun any more. Some people take issue with being described as savages. Go figure.'
In the story, Riley has time-traveled from 1898, London, to present-day London. He apparently looks at Chevie's glossy black hair and thinks he's landed in a Wild West Show and that she's a "savage Injun." Those Wild West Shows did, in fact, tour England, starting in 1887. But what to make of Chevie saying 'Go figure' to people taking issue with being described as savages? Don't we generally use "go figure" to dismiss something we think is a waste of time? Who, I wonder, is speaking at that point? The character, Chevie? Maybe, but I kind of think 'go figure' is coming from the author himself.

Riley continues:
'I saw Buffalo Bill's Extravaganza a while back. You have the look of an Apache.'
Chevie half-smiled. 'Shawnee, if you have a burning need to know.
I'm a bit puzzled by Riley thinking Chevie was Apache. In the Buffalo Bill shows, the Indians were Lakota.

A bit further on, Chevie tells Riley a bit more about herself (p. 188):
'My mom and dad grew up on the Shawnee reservation in Oklahoma. They call it trust land these days. As soon as my dad could afford a motorbike, my mom hopped on the back and they took off across the country. Got married in Vegas and settled in California. I came along a while later, and Dad told me that things were just about perfect for a couple of years until Mom was killed by a black bear over in La Verne.' Chevie shook her head as if she still could not accept this face. 'Can you believe that? A Native American on a camping trip killed by a bear. Dad never got over it. Oh, we were happy enough, I guess. But he drank a lot. When love dies, he told me, there are no survivors.' 
There's a lot to say about that paragraph.

  • What "Shawnee reservation" is Chevie talking about? There are three federally recognized Shawnee tribal nations in Oklahoma: the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, the Shawnee Tribe, and, the Absentee Shawnee Tribe. 
  • That said, "reservation" gives me pause, too. Chevie is 16. Doing some math based on the publication year for The Reluctant Assassin, I think we'd be in the 1960s or 1970s when Chevie's parents were growing up. But, tribes in Oklahoma went through allotment. Their reservations ceased to exist as reservations in the late 1800s. What, I wonder, is Chevie/Colfer talking about when he says "reservation"?
  • But, Chevie tells us, they don't call it that anymore. Now, they call it "trust land." Colfer is taking us into federal law that is hard to understand. I like that he's trying, but it muddies things up more than is helpful. Before allotment, the Shawnee Tribe had been incorporated into the Cherokee Nation, but had maintained their identity as Shawnees. In 2000, the U.S. Congress, working with the Cherokee Nation and the Shawnee Tribe, restored the Shawnee Nation to its status as a distinct entity. The document about it includes "trust land" and "trust responsibility" in it, and I suspect that is where Colfer got "trust land" from. It doesn't ring true for me to hear Chevie say that they call it trust land now, but I'll ask friends who are Shawnee and see what they say. 
  • Why does Chevie expresses disbelief that a Native American would get killed by a bear on a camping trip? Is it because Native people are supposed to be one-with-the-animals? Or, because Native people would know how to defend themselves from animals in the wild? Either one is a stereotypical framework.
  • Chevie's dad drinks. Is that a drunken Indian stereotype? Or just a grieving husband like many who turn to alcohol to self-medicate? My hope is that Colfer had the latter one in mind, but to a Native reader, the first one stands out as that drunken Indian stereotype. 
I think The Reluctant Assassin is the kind of story people clamor for. By that, I mean the people who want diversity but don't want that diversity not to be a factor in the story. A story where the characters are racially diverse, but that the story isn't about racial issues. I understand that desire, but it makes me bristle. Imagine a conversation where a white mother is sitting with me, a Native mother, and the white mother is saying, without saying, "I don't want to know about what the Catholics did to the pueblos, and, I don't want to hear about the pueblos fights for their water rights, either. Just be my friend." Am I being reductive? Unfair? Maybe.

It would be cool for a Shawnee kid to read a story like The Reluctant Assassin, IF the Shawnee parts were accurate. When stereotypes are there instead, though, it kind of ruins the magic for that Shawnee reader, or for any reader who knows a bit about Shawnees or Native peoples. Its kind of like Colfer didn't imagine that a Shawnee kid might read this book. I'm sure Colfer meant well. Writers do. But I think their work would be even better if they had Native readers in mind, too, when they created their stories and characters.

The Relucant Assassin is not that story. Chevie's name... there's a story behind it. This is at the end of the book.

Early in the book, Chevie told Riley that the tattoo she has (of a chevron) is the same one men in her family have had going back to Tecumseh. It marks them as warriors. Turns out not to be true, though. Her dad told her that story, and she believed it. Later, she learned that her dad worked at a Chevron gas station. He got his tattoo just to annoy a guy who owned a Texaco gas station. Here's that conversation. Riley says (p. 331):
"So, no noble warrior?"
"No. And I based my whole life on that story, got the tattoo, told anyone who would listen, became an agent. Last year I meet the Texaco guy, who is broken up that my pop died, and he tells me the truth. I am named after a gas station."
That is a kick in the gut. In pop culture, people have a grand time fooling around with Native names. It is perverse to see it in this story, coming from a character that is supposed to be Native. Definitely not recommending The Reluctant Assassin. 


rebecca said...

This sounds terribly offensive.

I don't agree about "go figure," though. I've always heard "go figure" as a sharply sarcastic way to say "that's so surprising." So I read the character as saying it's SO SURPRISING (sarcastically) that people would take umbrage at the racist term.

rebecca said...

That said, though, the rest of what you cite is so offensive that there's no reason to give the author the benefit of the doubt that "go figure" was meant the way I've heard the phrase used rather than the way you've heard it used.

Truth Unleashed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Debbie, do you think the story could be improved by changing the book to state, early on, that Chevron is the girl's legal name and not her Indian name? And also that her father was "a very, very big sellout" for giving her that name--or rather, legally changing her name to that, as the story should have him start drinking after her mother's death, and his "beer problem" is a factor in that strange name? Especially since that fake Tecumseh story sounds perfectly like a "noble savage" tale. (Maybe she should, at birth, have been named after her mother or her mother's mother, and that should also be a reason for the name change, as her father should probably have felt very sad whenever he thought of his daughter's birth name.)
And there probably should be another reason (written in the book when it is eventually rewritten, as I believe it must be; I rather enjoy what another character named Tibor Charismo/Terry Carter does in that book as it seems to echo some Back to the Future scenes at full blast) why her father picked that name, Chevron. His job at Chevron could have been a major income source for him, and that would make him paranoid (of losing his job to that Texaco owner), as well as grieving, after his wife died. Also, it should be mentioned early in the book that Chevie, as a child, was constantly teased for having the same name as where her father worked back then. Later, when she tells Riley the fake legend, she should also say that the (phony) tattoo tradition was not always followed over the years, and that because of this, her father didn't get the tattoo until after her mother died, to try and raise his morale after her mother died, and that the tradition and his gas station job were (supposedly) merely a coincidence. And she should also say, after revealing the truth to Riley, that she's probably the only Amerindian with such a strange name or namesake, and (maybe?) that non-Indian people sometimes have weird-sounding names as well (Button Gwinnett and ), but that they're never okay to laugh at in any way. Do ye think adding that much extra stuff in the book will, uh, redeem the strange name? Because I have the feeling that that name wasn't intended in, you know, the Soonchild way. I wonder if he intended to be like the name of the (East Indian) title character of Life of Pi (who is named Piscine Molitor Patel, and who, of course, suffers a lot of teasing--and teasing is something which Colfer really should have included in Chevie's backstory in this book). Yes, I know the namesake's reveal reads as if it was originally designed to make people racistly laugh (and it very well might have been; I never would have thought it was even supposed to be "funny" if I hadn't known about such mockery of Native names), but I think it could be made less racist if it were told so, early in the book, that it's an unfortunate name, and that will keep people from laughing at the real namesake when it is revealed.
Also, there was something you didn't mention in your review. Some of the people in Victorian England that meet Chevie call her "princess". And I don't recall her criticizing it, either. Goodness gracious.
And, finally, yes, I do agree with Rebecca above about "go figure". I thought Chevie was using it to say, "You figure out why" or "Think (hard) about it". (As in a joke I've heard, "We drive on a parkway but park on a driveway. Think deeply about this.") So maybe Colfer knew how well white people used to "enjoy" calling indigenous people "savages". Too bad he isn't, for one, a reader of your blog.